IAF officer set to face criminal case for missile that downed Mi-17 chopper
The Indian Air Force (IAF) has removed the Air Officer Commanding (AOC) Srinagar Air Base, the senior-most officer of the base, for circumstances related to the crash of an Mi-17 helicopter near Srinagar on February 27 after it came under friendly fire, even as a Court-of-Inquiry (CoI) continues to investigate the matter.
A final report is yet to be submitted.
An IAF spokesperson declined comment on the matter.
On February 27, even as Indian and Pakistani jets were engaged in a dogfight in the Nowshera sector, a Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter of IAF crashed. All six airmen on board the helicopter were killed. The helicopter was downed by a surface-to-air missile of IAF which mistook the aircraft to be hostile, initial inquiries have revealed.
As the inquiry nears completion, IAF is considering whether or not it should slap criminal charges against those found lacking. “There will be no tolerance of lapses,” said a senior defence ministry official who asked not to be named. Culpable homicide not amounting to murder is one of the charges that IAF is contemplating pressing against those found guilty by the CoI. “Unprecedented as it might be, IAF leadership is clear that such lapses are not repeated,” the official added.
The AOC has been removed because the incident happened on his watch.
The preliminary inquiry into the accident has allegedly indicated several lapses leading to the tragic accident. For instance, the air traffic control called the helicopter back even as air engagement between Indian and Pakistani fighters intensified. “Ideally, the helicopter should have been sent away to safer zone instead of it being called back to the base,” said a second senior defence ministry official who did not want to be named. “The incoming helicopter should have been vectored into the pre-designated zone meant for friendly aircraft to hold till the alert was called off,” the official added.
All bases have designated airspace for friendly aircraft in case of an air-defence-alert. “Air defence platforms such as missile systems, air defence guns etc. are kept free; they are free to engage any aircraft which doesn’t identify itself as a “friendly” either through the IFF or by remaining confined to the airspace designated for friendly aircraft,” the second senior officer added.
In this case, the Identification of Friend or Foe (IFF) – a transponder-based identification system that informs the air defence radars whether incoming aircraft is friendly – was switched off, against the laid down protocol.
After a “near-air-miss” incident in Jammu and Kashmir in 2018 between a C-130 J, a US-made transport aircraft, and a Russian-made Su-30 fighter aircraft, IAF Headquarters directed all aircraft coming into land to have their IFF systems on. Surprisingly, the Srinagar Air Base had issued contradictory orders. “Had the IFF system been on, air defence radars would have at least identified Helicopter as a friendly aircraft,” the second senior defence ministry official said.
The Mi-17 helicopter — one of the sturdiest in its category — under the command of squadron leader Siddarth Vashistha took off from Srinagar airbase at about 10 am. The air intrusion alert was sounded almost at the same time as Indian fighters took on Pakistani Air Force fighters over Nowshera. The helicopter crashed around 10.10am over Budgam.
In addition to the six IAF personnel, a civilian was killed on the ground.